By Allen Long
I once sat on the floor at a Saturday night party at my friend Rick’s house; I was drunk, and Rick unknowingly stood on my legs, sipped a beer, and conversed with a pretty blonde from school named Jane. I’d downed six large plastic cups of Heineken from the keg for two reasons. First, I’d just worked nineteen of the last twenty-four hours as a cook at Pizza Hut, and my legs ached bone-deep, so the brews served as sedatives/painkillers. Second, I’d entered junior high as a crew-cut straight-A widely despised nerd, and now that we were high school seniors, I enjoyed shaking my shoulder-length auburn hair and reminding my classmates I could party with the best of them.
“Rick!” I shouted. “Watch the legs!”
Rick glanced down, laughed, stepped off my pins, and apologized. Jane smiled at me, but I was clear-headed enough to catch the flicker of disappointment in her eyes. I was embarrassed. Jane and I’d been in school together since kindergarten or first grade. Our mothers were friends from college, so Jane came over to play at my house periodically when our mothers got together. My guy-room didn’t interest her, so we often went for short walks; we liked each other but were too shy to say much. I had a bit of a crush on her that lasted for years. During our best visit together, we gorged ourselves on delicious green grapes growing on a fence we shared with a neighbor who raised orchids and parakeets. This was a bonding moment for sure, but our only one.
At Yorktown, our high school, Jane and I smiled and said hello in the halls. She seemed poised for a highly successful life: she was attractive, friendly, and down to earth; she was well-liked by her classmates, she held a high rank in student government, and she’d aced her classes and was Harvard-bound. I was happy for her, but I felt a wistful regret that we’d never become closer. I was a smart guy with good prospects, but here I was now, drunk on the floor without the maturity or common sense just to sip my beer socially.
To make matters worse, I caught Wendy Summers looking at me with pity as well. Wendy was a stunner, with long red hair and matching green eyes. Also, she smiled and laughed a lot and seemed like a kind and happy person. I had a big-time crush on her, but I knew she wasn’t available. She stood with her boyfriend Frank Delatorre, who was a bit short, but he was deadly handsome with piercing blue eyes and shiny liquid-gold hair.
Luckily, I redeemed myself with Wendy before the school year ended. This was 1975 in Arlington, Virginia, and Wendy and I were both in a psychology class engaged in encounter groups. Our class was divided into four small groups, and Wendy and I were in the same cluster. We were encouraged to tell our peers the basics of our personalities and interests within five minutes. Then each classmate would make honest comments about how he/she perceived that person. The idea seemed to be to identify gaps or a lack of gaps between these two realities. We were encouraged to hug each other at the end of the session to soothe hard truths and our high anxiety levels. Our much-loved teacher, Mr. Lee, circulated from one group to another, monitoring our progress and making sure our comments about one another remained humane.
Wendy said she wanted to become a nurse because she liked helping people; two years as a volunteer at Arlington Hospital had inspired her. Her expression was bright and open. God, I loved her, or I thought I did. When it came time for my comments about how I perceived her, I said, “I think you’re very attractive and also full of kindness and positive energy. You’ll make a terrific nurse.” She smiled, her eyes shiny with gratitude.
When it was my turn to describe myself, I said, “I’m a pretty mellow guy, kind of shy, and I love reading, writing fiction, swimming, playing guitar, and spending time outdoors—in fact, I’m going to Virginia Tech and may end up as a forest ranger—spending time outdoors is very spiritual for me.” I pictured myself working contentedly at a remote post in a gorgeous forest and writing fiction in these inspirational surroundings. This never happened—I ended up unhappily working in the business world in expensive California, where we moved to be close to my first wife’s family.
In high school, I had three close friends: my buddy Will whom I’d known since first grade, my friend Nick whom I’d met in seventh grade and who shared my passion for swimming and science fiction and horror books/movies, and my pal Craig V. who played guitars with me. Otherwise, I wasn’t that well known, so my encounter group mates told me how happy they were to get to know me.
Wendy commented last: “Before today, I thought you were a total derelict, but I can see now you’re a smart nice guy who’s going to be happy and successful.” When the embracing began, Wendy made straight for me and gave me a bear hug. She held me tighter and longer than I expected, and I felt we became friends. Unfortunately, I never saw her again after graduation, despite attending a couple of class reunions. I still think about her, though, especially since I now work as an assistant nurse in an inner city hospital—as it turns out, I, too, discovered a deep desire to help others.
I recently dreamed about Wendy. We were back in high school, and there’d been some kind of natural disaster in Arlington, and we had to evacuate our homes for the night. Wendy and I ended up in the same shelter, sitting together on a sofa. We were pleased to have each other for company, and when we became sleepy, I put my arm around Wendy’s shoulders, and she snuggled into me, leaning her head against my chest. We fell into a deep and contented sleep. This is one of the most peaceful dreams I’ve ever had.
Okay, so there’s a third reason I was drunk at Rick’s party. My younger brother Danny and I were physically abused by our parents from the time we were small children until we each entered seventh grade. So I was a bottled up guy who enjoyed uncorking myself now and then. That’s why Wendy’s friendship hug felt like pure, unadulterated love and why I wanted to redeem myself with Jane.
Jane gave a speech at our graduation ceremony, but I didn’t see her at any of the parties that ensued. Soon after, we left for college and lost all contact. However, over the years, I received tidbits of news about Jane from my mom. She graduated with honors from Harvard; she earned a B.A. in art history and debated whether to pursue an art-based career or study law. Her father, who’d abandoned the family when Jane was in elementary school, was a lawyer. She fell into crisis trying to figure out if she really wanted to be an attorney or if she was considering that path to please/impress her father. She put her life on hold and sought therapy. Later, Jane married, and her husband left her. She returned to therapy. Jane dated and then married one of our high school classmates, Jimmy Thornton, and they had two sons.
I was pleased to hear of Jane’s triumphs and sad to learn of her struggles. I wished I could help her in some way, but she was on the East Coast, and I was married and living near San Francisco. I don’t know why, exactly, but I felt an unusual amount of empathy toward her, perhaps because we’d partially bonded when we’d laughed with crazed abandon as we stuffed ridiculous amounts of jade-colored grapes into our mouths, the sticky sweet juice pouring down our chins. Also, we’d both been somewhat beat up by life.
And I was happy to hear Jane had married Jimmy Thornton because I remembered him as a good-natured kid with a sense of humor. Jimmy was a friend of my buddy Nick and often sat with us at our junior high lunch table. Whenever we got into insult battles, Jimmy might say, “That’s pretty big talk for a one-eyed fat man!” A line from the John Wayne movie, True Grit. Or sometimes he‘d say, “I’ve et better men than you with their heads buttered and their ears pinned back!” Source: unknown.
I wondered if Jane ever thought about me, and if she did, was I her grape-guzzling buddy, a derelict, or something else? I suspected I rarely crossed her mind, and if I did, she probably just remembered me as a nice guy she’d known from her pre-college school years.
Shortly after I made plans to attend my thirtieth high school class reunion in Washington, D.C., my mother, who was friends with Jane, called to tell me that Jane would be there as well and wanted my advice about a world-famous and expensive French restaurant in Berkeley where she and her family planned to dine while on vacation. I knew the restaurant and said I’d be happy to pass on a couple of tips. I was excited and curious about seeing Jane.
I attended the reunion alone, my beloved second wife Elizabeth having stayed behind in California with our four children. The venue consisted of an insanely crowded bar with French doors opening out upon an expansive lush and fragrant garden. I wended my way to the bar and ordered a Corona with lime. Of my close friends, only Nick was attending the reunion, and I didn’t see him, so I strolled the grounds, stopping periodically to sip my brew and chat with classmates I remembered liking. Fireflies flickered around us. After several encounters, I met up with Jane. She looked pretty and elegant in her simple black dress with pearls. We smiled.
Jane said, “It’s so wonderful to see you!”
I concurred. Then we spent a few minutes catching up—Jane had ended up working as an art therapist, and she was now a stay-at-home mom; I was founder and president of a small Silicon Valley high-tech marketing firm. I didn’t know it then, but my firm was destined to get wiped out in the Great Recession that began in 2001, and I would become a swimming instructor, a swim team coach and, later, an assistant nurse, all very satisfying “helping” jobs. We briefly discussed our families—I knew Jimmy, of course.
Finally, Jane glanced at me shyly and said, “Did your mom tell you I was hoping you could give me a few pointers about the restaurant?” When I nodded, she said, “Is there any informal way to eat there? I’m afraid the boys might not present the best manners. Also, is there any trick to keeping the price down while still having a good meal?”
Before I could answer, Jimmy rounded a nearby oak, glared at me, and shouted at Jane. “Where the hell have you been? I need you over here with me, now!” He grabbed her arm with surprising force. Jane cried out and broke free.
“You’re not doing this!” she yelled. “You don’t own me—I’ll be there when I finish talking to Allen—don’t you even want to say hi to your old friend?”
Jimmy shot me a venomous glance and strode back the way he’d come.
“What’s wrong with him?” I said.
“Stress,” she said. “He does classified work for the government, and it takes a toll.”
Jane’s face creased with anxiety, and she trembled. I longed to touch and comfort her. I think she sensed this but was afraid she’d break down if I made contact. Also, touching wasn’t in our repertoire.
She forced her face into a bright expression. “So, please, tell me about the restaurant!”
“There’re two tricks to it,” I said. “Go there for lunch because it will only cost half the price of dinner. Also, eat downstairs versus upstairs because downstairs is less formal, and you should be able to have your sons with you without any hassle.”
As I delivered this information, the last of my derelict embarrassment slipped away, and I felt a warm glow of satisfaction from helping my friend after all these years. But even as Jane thanked me and turned to join her husband, I knew my gift was like one of the fireflies surrounding us—a brief flash of luminescence besieged by darkness.
About the Author:
Allen Long is the author of Less than Human: A Memoir (Black Rose Writing, 2016). His work has recently appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine and the Adelaide Literary Awards Anthology 2018. In addition, his memoirs have appeared or are forthcoming in Broad Street, Eunoia Review,and Hawaii Pacific Review. An assistant editor at Narrative Magazine since 2007, Allen lives with his wife near San Francisco.